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1975-1975 Kentucky Legislative Report

The Kentucky Lantern launched on November 30, and this commentary appeared in the The Lantern  on Friday in a slightly abbreviated form. If you have not yet subscribed, you can (and should ) do so here: 

The Kentucky Lantern is  described on its website as “an independent, nonpartisan, free news service.

“We focus on how decisions made in the marble halls of power ripple through the lives of Kentuckians. We bring attention to injustices and hold institutions and officials accountable. We tell the stories of Kentuckians who are making a difference and shine a light on what’s working. Our journalism is aimed at building a fairer, healthier Kentucky for all. 

“The Lantern is part of States Newsroom (, a nonprofit, coast-to-coast network of journalists that works to fill gaps in state government reporting caused by the declining numbers of state and local journalists.”

The Kentucky Lantern offers hope for broader oversight into the recesses of Kentucky government that have evaded scrutiny. 

Our commentary traces the open records law from its inception to its current threatened demise.

* * * * * * 

Lawmakers in 1975 faced a dilemma.

One year earlier, they enthusiastically enacted an open meetings and an open records law aimed at restoring the public's trust in government. Years of deception associated with the Vietnam Conflict and clandestine and illegal activities by the Nixon administration -- collectively referred to as the Watergate scandal -- prompted Kentucky's General Assembly, and a number of state legislatures across the country, to enact laws securing the people's right to "remain[ ] informed so they may retain control over the instruments that they have created."

But doubts emerged that the newly enacted open records law "would provide inadequate protection of records containing information of a personal or private·nature concerning individuals and businesses" -- prompting former Governor Wendell Ford's 1974 veto. 

A November 1974 Kentucky Court of Appeals opinion, City of St. Matthews v. Voice of St. Matthews, established “the general principle that government records would be open to public inspection, unless an overriding public policy warranted confidentiality" suggesting the need to pump the brakes on open records legislation.……

Some lawmakers -- among them Rep. Joe Clarke of Danville, Kentucky -- nevertheless "felt the need for legislation to make public records more accessible.” Clarke commented that the need for a “bill has grown out of the frustration that citizens feel when — after participating in the process of electing a representative government— elected officials act as if the government belongs to them rather than the people.” He and other lawmakers recognized that "the St. Matthews decision did not adequately address three major questions: What is a 'public record'? What public records should be exempt from disclosure? [And u]nder what guidelines will public officials operate in allowing citizens to inspect public records?"…

Courageously, the Interim Joint Committee on State Government’s Subcommittee on Open Records — chaired by Clarke — openly and transparently moved forward in1975. Along the way, the subcommittee "solicited the viewpoints of public officials and concerned citizens on the basic issues and on initial drafts of legislation.” Most "favored the general principle of open access to records."

While not considered the nation's strongest public records law, the resulting Kentucky Open Records Act -- enacted in 1976 -- provided a durable legislative framework that admirably fulfilled its function and adapted to dramatic changes in records keeping practices and technology along the way.

Over time, the law required very few legislative "fixes." The 1994 revisions to the law -- aimed at addressing the proliferation of electronic public records and commercial use of public records -- resulted from an open, collaborative process that yielded a positive outcome.

Once again, Kentucky lawmakers solicited broad input, excluding no one from the table. Serious questions arose when they did — as in 2012, when lawmakers quietly narrowed the definition of “public agency” under highly suspicious circumstances with no input from public stakeholders.…

Fast forward some 25 years and an ascendant majority party began a steady — and secretive — assault on the open records law that was calculated to avoid public notice and opposition. When caught with their hands in the "public records cookie jar," the new majority derisively dismissed open government advocates' concerns that "the sky is falling."

Lawmakers' covert efforts culminated in 2021's HB 312, a bill that did far more unquestionable harm than questionable good by establishing a “residents only“ requirement for use of the open records law and entirely excluding the General Assembly and Legislative Research Commission from the open records law.…

“This whole session's been done in secret," lamented Jon Fleischaker, Kentucky's most widely recognized open records expert and advocate in 2021. "It was very cloak and dagger," the Kentucky Open Government Coalition added. "It was purposefully kept under the radar." Lawmakers sabotaged open records and open meetings in an equally secretive manner in the 2022 Regular Session of the General Assembly.…

As the 2023 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly approaches -- with the promise of even greater stealth to secure even greater secrecy -- the launch of States Newsroom in Kentucky, 

officially introduced to the public as Kentucky Lantern is heartening.

The Kentucky Lantern

 is "dedicated to serving as a government watchdog, covering policy, politics, and other stories of statewide interest," with a particular focus on "the Legislature, governor’s office, state agencies, and elections."…;

Four new sets of reporters' eyes 

offer hope to an understaffed and overworked Capitol press corp as well as a possible antidote to the secrecy that currently pervades Frankfort and that would have been deeply offensive to the 1975 legislative committee that drafted the open records law.

The Kentucky Open Government Coalition looks forward to working with Kentucky’s States Newsroom affiliate, The Kentucky Lantern, to expose covert legislative efforts aimed at undermining the public’s right to know and to shine a light on state agencies that have evaded scrutiny for far too long.


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